In 2011, I was teaching a post–Civil War US survey course focused on labor history called “Work and Community” (a title and orientation I had happily inherited) and assiduously trying to explain to a room full of somewhat baffled undergraduates why late nineteenth-century labor activists had described their industrial working conditions as “wage slavery” and what they had meant. For most students it was a peculiar phrase—wage and slave were not words they associated with one another—that felt consigned to a distant and strange past. A couple of weeks later I happened to travel up to New York for the weekend, visited Occupy Wall Street, and returned to teach the next week wearing a T-shirt that read, “Free the Wage Slaves.” Suddenly, and amid our shared laughter, this historical phrase seemed more immediately present.

Ideas about historical memory and the uses of the past deeply inform Matthew E. Stanley's...

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